Why Warren Buffett and Bill Gates will never attend the Kentucky Derby

While we stood in the security line at San Francisco International Airport, the lady behind us laughed to the lady ahead of us: “Gotta protect the hat!” She held up her bulky, octagon-shaped carry-on: “The most important thing!” The two laughed, chattered about the upcoming weekend, and it registered: the Kentucky Derby is always the same weekend as the Berkshire Hathaway meeting in Omaha—where we were headed. We wouldn’t need fancy hats in Omaha, just our ears open, ready to glean every bit of enlightenment that the “Oracle of Omaha” would drop.

On the way to the Kentucky Derby

I suppose we’ll never attend the Kentucky Derby ourselves, not as long as Warren Buffett keeps holding his annual meeting on the first Saturday in May. This year we make our ninth pilgrimage to Warren’s bash along with 35,000+ other fans/investors. Warren and his partner, Charlie Munger, are rock stars this weekend. The first year it amazed us that people would completely pack an arena to listen to two octogenarians field questions all day. On our ninth year, it doesn’t surprise us—we just scramble to get the best seats possible.

Some people camp outside the doors before they open at 7am, but we arrive just in time to join the swell, grabbing a free copy of the Omaha World-Herald on our way. Once in, it’s a veritable Running of the Bulls into the arena to get a seat. Fast-walking past the more civilized investors and getting ahead of even more by taking the stairs instead of the clogged escalators, we get to the portal spilling us into Section 119. The best seats are on the floor, and most early-birds head there, but since we didn’t line at 5am, we go for the next best bet—Section 119 to the left of the podium and up about 20 rows—and claim our positions. The traditional startup track—Pink Floyd’s Money—blares out of every speaker—setting the tone for this, the “Woodstock for Capitalists”.

The objective is to get a seat for the movie that starts at 8:30 and not get stuck in one of the overflow ballrooms. Standard practice is to drape your copy of the Omaha World-Herald over the back of your seat to save it while peruse the expo that showcases the companies owned by Berkshire Hathaway. People tend to honor this seat-saving in small bites, but it’s frowned upon to save entire rows with signs. I’m too paranoid to leave the seats unguarded, so I stay while Ray checks out the expo. There will only be a couple of empty places in the nose-bleed rows once the movie starts.

Ray and Jenny (our niece, a first-timer this year) check out the expo, and while seated in the electric car on the showroom floor, Jenny says, “Hey, isn’t that him?” Yes, it’s a genuine Warren sighting—always a big deal at the meeting. Outside of the official session in the arena, you never know where he’ll turn up. Last year, Ray ran into Bill Gates in the same spot, standing next to the electric car before the mob discovered him. (Bill, not Ray).

Right before the movie starts, Berkshire’s directors—including Bill Gates—take their seats to the theme ofThe Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. They mill around while hundreds of people snap photos just behind the cordons. Before the Q&A, Warren officially introduces each director, and all 35,000+ attendees dutifully follow his request to hold the applause until the end—presumably to avoid an awkward, prolonged reaction to Bill’s notoriety.

The movie itself—produced with the gratis participation of notable celebrities every year—is timely and funny, a conglomeration of digital shorts à la Saturday Night Live. This year’s opening skit spotlights Warren’s secretary, Debbie Bosanek, recently renowned for paying a higher percentage of taxes than her boss. In it, she’s become bigger than Buffett himself, who ends up having to answer the phone for her, putting through calls from Oprah and President Obama. Warren’s nightmare skit ends with his hands at his ears in a scream—and then the film cuts to Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, which made history three days earlier by selling for $119,922,500 at Sotheby’s. Other notable shorts include Warren auditioning for Glee with his ukulele and singing with Sue (Jane Lynch)—an “alleged lover” from his University of Nebraska days—and a clip with Jimmy Buffett in the role of Warren’s psychologist, playing video games on his iPad while Warren dreams of playing the ukulele.

Warren Buffett drinks a cokeAfter the movie, we come to the main attraction—the Q&A—the reason we are all here. Warren and Charlie come out from behind the curtains to take their seats at a table from which they’ll answer questions and consume See’s Candies and Coca-Cola for the next six hours. It’s hard to describe the excitement. On the surface it seems a little silly to hang on every word these guys say. Sure, they’re seriously rich guys, but if they were boring, we wouldn’t be here. The fact is, they put on something approaching a comedy routine and dispense pearls of investment wisdom while doing so. The room is filled with financial experts, investors, and students anxious to glean precious tidbits. There are tons of websites that attempt to transcribe every word uttered by this pair of investment yogis—the output of feverish note-taking marathons—so I won’t do that here. I’ll continue tomorrow with a recap of the highs as I saw them this year in Omaha, along with photos from the gala cocktail hour the night before.